Design Goals

RPG’s can quickly become unwieldy, and it is easy to lose focus. This will be a design document that will lead development of the RPG. I will make updates to it, and it will be the skeleton of the work as a whole.

1. The world should be consistent and reactive.

2. Cultures and races (if there are distinct races) will be constructed on real world principles.

3. The world will be large and diverse.

4. The initial focus of the game will be on journey.

5. Every choice to be made mechanically should be difficult (no dump stats).

6. Mechanical interactions (combat, trade) will be consequential — no rolling just to roll.

7. Characters will come from somewhere and whether or not they can return, or have somewhere else to go, will be a central part of their life.

8. The world will reflect differing attitudes towards adventurers, and systems to deal with them.

9. There should be a world generation system that is a game unto itself.

10. The game should be fun.

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Class systems

Who we are, our identities, plays a central part in every aspect of our lives. Even deliberately eschewing an identity is in and of itself an identity.

In an RPG, this can be a good and a bad thing. It is good because it lets a player know where they stand — I’m a fighter, she’s a wizard, my opponent is a rogue. But it is also limiting. It can be difficult for a player to describe their character beyond their class. Is that how we describe ourselves? A simple descriptor of our profession or background? No, and I’d find it quite odd if someone did. It is possible, however, to create a composite. I’m a small town country boy, educated in the classics, and I repair yachts.

In mechanical terms, classes allow for game elements to be boxed. To be able to cast spells, one must be a wizard. To be able to pick a lock, you gotta be a thief. It’s a useful tool. It also keeps the game from being reduced to a series of costs and value judgements, as a system like GURPS will bring. There’s also the uniqueness factor.

Class systems, though, can also be restrictive, with character advancement that is linear, or a series of narrow choices. Suppose a player likes his character, but they do not like their class? Not an uncommon occurrence.

On a personal level, there are things that I’ll always be good at, and will always be bad at. I will never be able to sing like Freddie Mercury. Not gonna happen. I do have a seemingly remarkable memory of faces, though. I could train myself to sing. And someone who is bad at faces would learn techniques to help them remember them better, but I will always have an advantage, especially considering I can learn those same techniques. Likewise, Freddie Mercury could benefit from the same training that I would for singing.

My approach will then be modular. There will be a block for self, for background, and a framework for class. Ideally, as the character develops, you will be able to build on each of these discretely. What does this mean, mechanically? Perhaps it will be akin to having three different classes.

Origin:

Nomad, pastoral, farmer, urban

Personality:

Dutiful, Thoughtful, Heroic, Inqusitive

Profession:

Soldier, Vagabond, Mercenary, Scholar

Marco Polo would be an Inquisitive Urban Merchant. This simple description gives more of an identity than a singular class does, while retaining the useful simplicity.

Specializations

Being able to leverage a specialization grants an extra die when rolled. What is a specialization? In a previous post, I gave an example of “close fighting” under unarmed, and “short sword” with armed. If the character is mixing it up very close to an opponent, with a short sword, then she would benefit from both of those specialization dice.

There are a couple of important restrictions, and caveats.

If the word is a synonym for the skill — for example, hand to hand for unarmed. By definition, if you are fighting unarmed, then you are fighting hand to hand. My example of close fighting, under unarmed, may be undone by using a short sword. However, if the character has a free hand, then it is not a stretch that he may be grabbing his foe with the free hand. If they are using  a shield, then an unarmed specialization will simply not work.

An instinct of mine is to proof the system against power gamers who would seek to exploit it. While this is an admirable and worthwhile pursuit, it is also one set for failure, as any complex system can be exploited to some degree. Rather than enforcing a limit on specialization dice that could be used, instead I will ask and expect trust between the players, the game, and their gamemaster. Ultimately, it is up to the individual group to find that balance.

There will be guidelines.

First, if the specialization can be used every roll, it is not a specialization.

Second, remember avoiding words that are synonyms or closely related to the original skill.

Finally, it is key to write the specialization keyword in a limited, and specific fashion. For example, survival might have a specialization of “steppe” or “hoofed animals” — not “nature” or “animals.” The gamemaster can always veto the use of a particular skill.

Don’t be an asshole, basically.

What it means to be a team

There are the sorts of things that are better left out, or to be role-played, than to should be created mechanically. Consoling a character after the death of her father may or may not be compelling RP to the group. Regardless, it is a distraction to the sort of game I want to write to reinforce grief mechanically. It’s also kind of a weird thing to do.

The image I included for the header is indicative of the adventuring parties that will be cobbled together in Silk Road. You’ve got a steppe nomad, three vaguely pirate guys (one who manages to keep his head shaven) an old man with no regard for maps, and a sexy elf (who to me seems to be rather suggestive in her being bent over). Their shared purpose, while undoubtedly being somewhere on the map, likely involves getting rich. Or the things that getting rich will allow them to do. It also involves getting close to death, actually dying, and whole lot of boredom in the going to and fro of the adventure.

Which, unless the part of full of chaotically evil psychopaths, there will also be bonding. More than just bonding, there will be synergy, and a group dynamic that will hopefully stretch what is possible.

Danger, and dangerous situations is how this will be most apparent.

There will be a die pool. The use of which will be dynamic, reacting to the degree of danger that individuals or the party as a whole is in. Note, is in, not to be in. Meaning, this activates only after the danger is happening, and this is probably through the use of wounds accumulated.

Being wounded is something like this, currently:

Lightly wounded – one characteristic is lost

Heavily wounded – one characteristic is below half (round down)

Gravely wounded – two characteristics are below half (round down)

The party, too, has a notion of how “wounded” it is. The die pool is upgraded each time a wound threshold is met for at least half of the party — the party is lightly wounded when half of the characters are lightly wounded, heavily wounded when half are heavily wounded, and so on.

I’ll need to really careful, here. Munchkins may deliberately hurt a weak stat to become one of these ratings, so as to make the die pool increase in this particular step. Also, I don’t like “gamey” concepts where the pool disappears or reappears based upon when the players asses are actually in the seat.

So, right now, let’s have it like this. When the party is healthy, there is no pool. When it is lightly wounded, one die is put in per player. Heavily, two per player, gravely, three per player. The dice do replenish. But they also disappear when the level of danger is suitable.

Foe and hero abilities can be tied to the danger degree. This is clearly going to need another post!

Givin’ a hand

Team work has always been a weak point in RPGs that I have played, both around the table and through mechanics. There are lots of reasons for this. First, and from a mechanical perspective, writing is often a solitary task — collaborators and editors are brought in after the idea or the work has been done. They can help shape, but it is the author who creates the form. Nothing wrong with that. It does, however, create a bias towards the individual. This is a problem, because nearly all RPGs are played by groups. 

The psychology of the adventuring group is overlooked. Not of the players, but of their characters. Consider the experience in D&D — “a fantasy fucking Vietnam” — where groups of adventurers willing go into harms way, repeatedly. Most do this for wealth, but some do it for more esoteric reasons, like that of religious quest or vengeance. They are facing death, and not just the ordinary embrace of oblivion death, but of a variety of truly terrible ways to die. Eternal torment, being turned into a mindless thrall, having ones body become a host for a terrifying parasitic creature, turning into a mindless zombie, or being infected by a lycanthropic disease are just a few ways to die. These characters face stresses similar to, and greater than, soldiers in the worst of wars that history has brought us. What is the common theme for those? That you fight for your buddy next to. That you create bonds beyond that of simple friendship, bonds that endure over decades.

How can I turn that into a simple mechanical function? I can’t. Getting a +5 because you’re fighting with your homie just doesn’t cut it.

What are my options, then? Well, first is to ignore it. Go with that +whatever approach, and treat teamwork like I treat wearing a good pair of boots — that is, something nice, but not something a player will be overly concerned with.

The second is to imbue the entire system with the principles of teamwork. My header image is that of a wolf pack; this is not simply because they’re pretty and look cool running. No, my goal is to catch some of that essence, to make it easy for the players to have their characters become a pack of their own.

But how the hell do I do it?

I’m just a skill, yes, I’m only a skill

The idea of difficult choices is one I would like to extend to all aspects of the design, to include skills. I talked about this in my last blog post. The difficulty now is to establish a scope, and to identify its constituent parts.

In previous systems, I have toyed with the idea of splitting the skills into three groups — something like artisan, scholar, and warrior, or common, priest, and noble. Having clear divisions is useful. And it is useful when a skill falls clearly into one of these divisions. Heraldry is obviously a skill of the nobility, animal husbandry that of a commoner, and manuscript is that of the priestly class (if we are talking about a system based upon medieval Europe). Then there are different flavors of a certain activity that can be dispersed. Rhetoric for the scholar, persuasion for the noble, conniving for the commoner. Then there is the function of use. Jewelry is an artisan skill. Should it be a skill in the game? Basket weaving? No. Not in this game.

The division will be on the practical, then. Practical in what the system can, and cannot do. Mongoose Traveller has no division on skills. There is a list, and there is a characteristic that is to be used with the skill at hand — the specific choice of the characteristic is up to the referee. Alternity has a list, and each skill has a specific characteristic it is assigned to. Due to the way scores are computed, it would be difficult and against the system to apply driving, for example, to personality.

Silk Road has a count back system, where success is defined by the number of dice rolled at or above the count back number. Each point you have in a characteristic would allow you to buy one point back — so, for example, a 2 means you can get a 5+, a 3 would be 4+, a 4, 3+, a 5, 2+. Nothing is lower than a 1, and nothing is higher than a 5. So, the absolute best someone could roll is 5d6, looking for 2’s. The average result is somewhere above 4.something. I need to explore how advantages could add dice, and disadvantages can detract. I’m also working with the idea that doubles explode, regardless of the digit rolled, granting an additional die to roll.

But, right, skills.

Here’s what I’ve got.

Coordination: Acrobatics, Ranged (placeholder), Subterfuge

Acuity: Scholarship, Observation, Language

Resolve: Interaction, Adversity, Awareness

Thews: Armed, Unarmed, Athletics

With each skill, you can get a keyword specialization. These are deliberately left open. For example, someone could get “close fighting” for unarmed, and “short sword” for armed. These could, and would, be used together. As to what the exact benefit would be, that has yet to be seen.

Skills

Skills are probably the second most important aspect of character design, after characteristics. Actually, not maybe, they are. You can get a real sense of a game by the way skills are handled. GURPS has four and a half pages in skills, listed in a summary form — from Abacus to Zoology. Castles and Crusades has no skills. This doesn’t mean you can’t use an abacus in Castles and Crusades or apply principles of Zoology. It just means you won’t necessarily see a difference between using an abacus and reading a map, for example. While in GURPS you can be a master abacus user and get by reading a map by talent alone. As a would be designer, I respect the GURPS approach more. I’m pretty good at reading a map. I haven’t a clue at an abacus. Having these skills codified, specific, and narrow keep specialties respect for players, and it keeps arguments at a minimum. However, with any skill system, there are grey areas. In Mongoose Traveller, Recon was such a skill. Recon has a potentially vast grey area. It has codified mechanical concerns; but what does a master reconnasist do? Suppose he has a 5, which in Traveller skill terms is legendary. The player can try to use it in all sorts of situations — staging a fight in a cantina, arraying forces on a battlefield, getting a tactical advantage in a squad level skirmish — is this is valuable as a 5 in Gun Combat? Well, it’s up the player. Maybe the player doesn’t really understand reconnaissance. Maybe he’s really good at crafting arguments; maybe he is really bad. Something like Gun Combat, or even Stealth will be impacted considerably less by these factors. Someone good at shooting things has a pretty good idea of how to use that. Someone good at moving silently likewise.

There is nothing wrong with ambiguous skills. What I have cause with is skills where one is obviously better than the other; this isn’t about balance. It is about making all choices equal and difficult. While it is ultimately up the players and the GM to create an environment where there are no bad choices during play, it is up to the designer to create a system where there are not inherent false choices. What good is a high wisdom wizard in D&D? Helps saving throws, maybe with some spells. But it’s nowhere nearly as good as high intelligence. If a player can create it, it should be viable.

Characteristics (gifs inside)

All of the RPG’s I have played have certain numbers that define the characters innate ability. I find these define the game that will be played more than any other aspect. It is what the characters look towards to see where they are in relation to others in the world, and what they deem they are reasonably capable of. Silk Road will be no different. My intent is to avoid a few problems I have seen, while hopefully improving others.

Intelligence stats have always bothered me. I’ve seen many a character use their advanced intellect to their advantage, and I’ve even triggered their characters genius level intellects when the players were being anything but genius. What I have rarely seen is characters being blithering idiots used to their disadvantage. Such as hearing a noise in the woods and thinking a rabbit was an owlbear, or an owlbear a rabbit. Or falling for simple cons on the street. It is simply too hard to project anothers intellect upon ones self. How can I roleplay Stephen Hawkings thought process? Sure, complex math is really easy. What about seeing through the possibilities of complex problems, quickly? I simply cannot pretend to have that sort of processing power. For a diminished intellect, how can I pretend to be less intelligent? Sure, I can make bad choices deliberately. But there is also a learned caution that failure can bring. After being charmed six times, I would think the simplest mind would develop a defense, or even a psychosis to those who might try to dominate their mind.

Because of this, I will take a cue from Aftermath! and use the players intellect as the characters intellect. Instead of an intelligence score, there will be a learning score. I am currently calling thing AcuityMy instincts are to use old English rooted words where possible, so I can also go with wits or guile but neither of these cover the ability to learn. There is also comprehension, which might be the best to use.

Strength stats are not without problem, either. Every RPG I’ve laid eyes on has one. It makes sense, too. Strength is something we all grow up understanding — that of a parent, sibling, or bully being able to dominate physically is part of being an adolescent. This is true as adults. I was having dinner with my wife’s grandmother, and one of the servers there was massive. Close to seven feet tall, and well above 300 pounds. I’ll never be as strong as him. I’m not a small person, and I’m not particularly weak; but I will simply never be as strong as he is. But what does that mean in terms of functionality? Sure, if we are splitting wood, he can swing a heavier maul; he can carry a heavier pack in we were hiking. Could he carry an appreciably bigger weapon, or fire an appreciably larger bow? How much further can he throw a rock? There are certain intrinsic limitations depending upon what is at hand — a seven foot sword is going to be slow to recover a swing from, and personal strength will only lessen this. There is also the matter of being able to apprly this strength effectively. Consider the below gif:

cormier

No, that isn’t WWE. This is a light heavyweight bought between Dan Henderson (the guy going for a ride) and Daniel Cormier (the guy giving the lift). They both weighed in around 205 pounds. They are both freestyle wresting Olympians, albeit a decade separates their tenure. Yet, Daniel Cormier was able to lift up and throw down Dan Henderson in what was basically one motion. In D&D terms, Cormier might have a 16, while Henderson has a 15 or a 14 in strength. In D&D terms, Cormier would have to roll really well, and Henderson really bad for such a throw to happen. Yet, here he is performing a (less impressive) throw with similar ease:

cormier2

Again, let’s point out that he did this to someone roughly his size, and roughly his skillset. They were both 10th level fighters with grappling expertise, to put it in D&D terms. He could have done this sort of stuff all night.

Here he is doing it in a different fight, against a heavyweight:

cormier3

(If I’m killing wordpress, I’m sorry.)

This was against a guy who had vastly more experience, was bigger, and was skilled in grappling.

This isn’t simply a matter of strength. If we were to compare dead lifts, bench presses, or whatever else, they would be roughly comparable. We’re talking single digits in terms of D&D strength.

So, how do I model this in Silk Road? Good question. I don’t really know how.

I at least know the name I want to use. In keeping with my preference for old English, thews is my preferred term for strength. I want to make some sort of synergy; Daniel Cormier being a strong dude doesn’t mean he could pull the heaviest longbow at tours, even though he could have body-slammed the hell out of any of the archers.

Something else to consider — if Daniel had broken his foot, his hand, his thumb, or even his toe — how how would this impact his ability?

Coordination is my stat for fine motor skills. What does that mean, exactly? Can someone who plays piano well also play guitar well? Can he shoot a boy well? Tie a complex naval knot in the dark rain, upside down with a gale force wind? What about dodging an arrow? Getting the jump before someone else? No. This is has been the historical issue with “dexterity” stats — they cover feats of ability and skill that are wildly dispersed. Being able to scale a wall, walk a tight rope, shoot a bow, and dodge an arrow are all using the same physical chacharacteristics

If not, what do I do? It’s easy to have a tight definition when I exclude things, as I did with acuity. On a table top, I cannot translate someones manual coordination to their characters, however. There is also something immediately appreciable about fine motor skills — consider a major league pitcher being able to toss a baseball just so. It also has to do with the senses, touch, sight, sound, and even smell. It will not have the impact as thews would, but it will be more readily applicable.

Will is my final characteristic. Here, I am picking names — valor, courage, fortitude, determination — these all apply. Will has a more of a Germanic root. Ellen is the old English equivalent, but that has died in modern usage. Anyway. There comes a time when any man or woman will quit under certain circumstances. Torture is one. The question is not if you will break, but when. You see it in sports, too. Certain players wilt under pressure, some overcome an unbelievable amount of pressure and still prevail. RPG’s are stories about heroics. My intent is not to say “alright, your character exhausted her will, give me your dice” but to allow for extraordinary feats, and to set boundaries in survival situations.